Answers to Letters

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Answers to Letters

Tomas Tranströmer

Most critics would agree that Tomas Tranströmer is Sweden's most important poet since World War II. He has been associated with a variety of literary movements, lived through periods of enormous change in the world of poetry, and published poems with great diversity in form and content. Throughout his life, however, Tranströmer has published elegant and thoughtful poetry that explores the unconscious and challenges the reader's conception of the world, such as "Svar på brev" ("Answers to Letters"), from the collection Det Vilda Torget (The Wild Market-Square). Beginning with the discovery of a letter that was delivered twenty-six years earlier, the poem is a journey through the labyrinth of time, memory, and the past. It uses striking, often dream-like, comparisons and a sophisticated prose style to dramatize a journey of self-discovery.

The "self," or the identity of the poem's speaker and the object of this journey, is an elusive element in "Answers to Letters," partly because it is tied to both unconscious and conscious worlds. Tranströmer, an eminent psychologist in Sweden, is as interested in the workings of the unconscious self as he is in the function and purpose of poetry. The mature and profound meditation on these ideas leaves the reader with a poem that is characteristic of the eminent international poet highly regarded in the United States since the American poet Robert Bly began translating his material in the 1960s. He is now commonly accepted as a master in his native Sweden. "Answers to Letters," which was originally published in Stockholm in 1983, is available in

Robin Fulton's English translation, New Collected Poems, published by Bloodaxe Books in 1997.

Author Biography

Born in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 15, 1931, Tranströmer grew up with his mother, a primary school teacher, and his maternal grandfather, a ship's pilot. He attended high school during Sweden's postwar boom years, and after his obligatory military service, he spent eight years traveling and studying a variety of subjects at the University of Stockholm. In 1958, Tranströmer married Monica Blach and began working as a psychologist in Stockholm until, in 1960, he took a job as a psychologist in residence at an institution for juvenile delinquents near the city of Linköping.

By this time Tranströmer had published 17 dikter (17 Poems, 1954), which anthologized a selection of poetry written in his late teens and early twenties, and Hemligheter på vägen (Secrets on the Way), which broadened Tranströmer's poetic style and revealed some of the experience he gathered while traveling in Europe and Africa. During the 1960s, the poet came under the attack of certain Swedish critics, but his reputation began to grow internationally. Tranströmer became particularly successful in the United States, partly due to his friendship and collaboration with the American poet Robert Bly, a relationship that has continued for over forty years. Bly has long been one of the most influential translators of Tranströmer's poems into English, although Robin Fulton's translation of the complete works has become a standard text.

While continuing to publish collections of poetry throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including Östersjöar (Baltics, 1974) and Det Vilda Torget (The Wild Market-Square, 1983), Tranströmer also furthered his career as a psychologist in Västerås, Sweden. He suffered a stroke resulting in an inability to talk in November of 1990, but he was writing again soon enough to publish his autobiography, Minnena ser mig (Memories Look at Me) in 1993. Since then he has published a book entitled Sorgegondolen (The Sad Gondola, 1997), his eleventh collection of poetry. Tranströmer has received numerous literary awards, including the Neustadt International Prize for Literature 1990.

Poem Text

In the bottom drawer of my desk I come across a letter that first arrived twenty-six years ago. A letter in panic, and it's still breathing when it arrives the second time.

A house has five windows: through four of them the day shines clear and still. The fifth faces a black sky, thunder and storm. I stand at the fifth window. The letter.

Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years may be passed in a moment. Time is not a straight line, it's more of a labyrinth, and if you press close to the wall at the right place you can hear the hurrying steps and the voices, you can hear yourself walking past there on the other side.

Was the letter ever answered? I don't remember, it was long ago. The countless thresholds of the sea went on migrating. The heart went on leaping from second to second like the toad in the wet grass of an August night.

The unanswered letters pile up, like cirrostratus clouds promising bad weather. They make the sunbeams lusterless. One day I will answer. One day when I am dead and can at last concentrate. Or at least so far away from here that I can find myself again. When I'm walking, newly arrived, in the big city, on 125th Street, in the wind on the street of dancing garbage. I who love to stray off and vanish in the crowd, a capital T in the endless mass of the text.

Poem Summary

Stanza 1

Beginning directly on the left margin, without the indentations of the other five stanzas, stanza one is set apart from the rest of the poem. Tranströmer may be implying that the first lines are an introductory statement, or the subsequent indentations may be meant to underscore the fact that the letter the speaker finds at the bottom of his desk drawer is "breathing." In any case, the two sentences of the first stanza reveal a speaker, or a character that narrates the poem, who has "come across" a letter that arrived twenty-six years previously. The phrase "come across" does not imply any urgency or action; it is the letter itself that "arrives," "in panic" and still breathing after twenty-six years, like a ghost to haunt the speaker. The speaker's passivity, and his inability to respond to his past or to major questions that are breathing and panicking, will be an important theme in the following stanzas.

Stanza 2

The second stanza's description of a house with five windows, all of them looking out to a clear and still day except the one revealing a "black sky, thunder and storm," is a somewhat mysterious image, since this would never be the case in an actual house. In fact, Tranströmer seems to be implying that this house is an abstract metaphor as opposed to a real place; "a house" instead of "my house" or "the house" signifies that the speaker is speaking in a general or unspecific way. Also, a reader might at first picture a house with four windows, or at least four views, one on each side. A fifth window with a view that is entirely different from the others may signify something outside the normal area of perception.

The two-word sentence "The letter," which stands alone as if to emphasize its striking presence, connects the fifth window and the black storm to whatever it is that the letter represents. The fact that it is related to an obscure, stormy past may suggest that the letter contains questions that have haunted the speaker for a long time. And since the letter seems to represent some kind of living, breathing past, it may be that the letter has suddenly opened up a window to the past for the speaker and allowed him, or forced him, to confront something that he is unable to answer.

Stanza 3

Stanza three begins by discussing time, observing that an "abyss" can occur between two days, but many years can pass in a very short time. This "abyss" refers, in part, to sleep, which can be a dreamland of an undefined amount of time and occur on an entirely different plane of existence. The poem "Dream Seminar," which comes shortly after "Answers to Letters" in The Wild Marketplace, expands on the idea that dreams can inhabit a separate and timeless world related to the subconscious. This is one reason that time is like a "labyrinth"; the past, subconscious memories, and major unanswered questions about life continue to haunt and confuse people until it seems that they are struggling through a previous passage of the maze of life.

It is also significant that the speaker compares time to a labyrinth because it suggests that he desperately wants to find a way out of time and to escape. Death is the obvious way to fully escape from time, and Tranströmer will continue to be interested in the idea of death later in this poem, but there is also the possibility of escape from normality that was represented by the "fifth window" of stanza two. There is a sense in which the speaker might need to confront "the hurrying steps and the voices" of the past, which appear to be more like haunting ghosts than fond memories, but are nevertheless intriguing keys to the speaker's identity. The speaker may desire to find the other self that is "walking past there on the other side," and answer the letter that is haunting him.

Stanza 4

The speaker's question of whether he ever answered the letter, and the fact that he cannot remember, emphasizes the uncertainty and stormy panic of the past and suggests that the letter may even be unanswerable. As if to stress that this is a vast problem and confusion, Tranströmer then provides the somewhat confusing image, "The countless thresholds of the sea went on migrating." "Thresholds" denotes entrances to the sea, or perhaps beaches, but it is difficult to imagine how they might migrate; perhaps the poet intends to evoke an image of the seas changing shape over hundreds or thousands of years of geological time. In any case, this phrase also has a double meaning related to the fifth window of stanza two and the "abyss" of time in stanza three. The threshold of the sea is a repetition, in a different form, of the previous imagery of the window and the entrance into the abyss of the past, and it is important to note that the speaker's access into this world of unanswered questions is constantly "migrating" and changing.

Stanza four's final sentence is another image of the progression of time, and again the reader should notice that time is not a straight line. Like a toad on wet grass, each heartbeat and each second leaps in a haphazard and even impulsive path, without a clear direction. What does seem true about the pattern of time is that each second is tied exactly to each heartbeat, as if an individual person's experience of time determines the objective reality of seconds, days, and years. Tranströmer highlights this contradiction between objective time and the individual whim by combining the abstract and general image of "the heart," as opposed to "my heart," "leaping from second to second" with the very specific image of "the toad in the wet grass of an August night."

Stanza 5

By changing the image of one letter to "unanswered letters pil[ing] up," and associating them with stormy weather that takes the shine out of sunbeams, the poet reinforces the idea that the letters are somehow haunting him and reminding him of things that are unresolved. The third sentence, "One day I will answer," stands out as a declaration, but it is not an immediate resolution, and the idea that the speaker will not be able to do so until he dies reinforces the idea that he is unable to confront the memories and questions in the letter or letters.

However, the next sentence, which suggests that the speaker may be able to respond or confront his past once he is able to "find myself again," is more hopeful. Tranströmer is explicitly confronting his reader with the idea that the speaker must enter an obscure labyrinth of his time in order to find his identity. The speaker cannot "find [him]self," or know who he really is, while looking out one of the four windows from stanza two that reveal the "clear and still" daylight. He must enter the world of the panicked, breathing letter that is very far away from "here," by which the speaker presumably means his home and his everyday life.

The final two sentences of the poem visualize a specific image of the speaker "finding himself again" and answering the letters from his past. The speaker suddenly envisions the place where he can concentrate and find his identity: "newly arrived, in the big city, on 125th street" amongst garbage blowing around in the wind. This location, which is very specific in the sense that it is so carefully and precisely described but simultaneously quite formless since the speaker is walking "in the wind," is likely to refer to New York City. The 125th street of Harlem, New York, an area known in the twentieth century for its dominant African American population, is quite well known because it is the location of the Apollo Theater, where many African American celebrities have begun their careers.

The tension between specificity, or identity, and formlessness continues in the final sentence of the poem. Its emphasis, which Tranströmer underscores with diction, or word choices, like "stray off," "vanish," and "endless mass," seems to be on the speaker's disappearance into obscurity. The sense of formlessness is also emphasized by the use of sentence fragments in the last four sentences. Yet the phrase "capital T" is vital to the balance between formlessness and fixed identity in the closing line of the poem; it immediately connects the speaker to the poet's identity, since a "T" begins Tranströmer's first and last names, and it stands out strongly as a contradiction to the "endless mass." The reader is left unsure whether the process of answering letters, turning to the past, and entering the labyrinth of time, will allow the speaker to find his identity or wash him away into obscurity.


Time, Memory, and the Past

Many of Tranströmer's central thematic concerns in "Answers to Letters" are related to time. This is most explicit in the third stanza and its description of the speaker's experience of the labyrinth of time, but each stanza refers to time in some manner, often in connection to the speaker's memory and past represented by the rediscovered letter. Stanza one introduces the theme of an object representing something twenty-six years in the past that is still breathing and panicking; stanza two seems to refer to some obscure and cloudy version of time outside its "fifth window"; stanza four describes time in unique visual terms emphasizing that it does not run in a straight line; and stanza five envisions the speaker in a contradiction between a vague point in time in the future ("one day"), and the specific moment of walking in the wind of 125th street.

Like the speaker's letter, which can be a source of meaning and promise but also a cause for fear and panic, time plays a somewhat contradictory role in the poem. There is a strong sense throughout the poem that time is haunting the speaker, and that time is an evil labyrinth or a black and cloudy storm from which he desperately wants to escape into the sunbeams and clear weather. Yet the speaker also seems to want to confront the strange phenomenon of time, to find the "self" walking past him on the other side of the wall in time's labyrinth. He wants to answer the unanswered letters from the past and face the questions they pose, and he insists that he will confront the stormy past when, in the last stanza, he says, "One day I will answer." Tranströmer seems to be commenting, therefore, on the nature of time itself; the speaker needs to escape from time in order to find himself, but he can only experience his "self" and find an identity within the structure of time.

Topics For Further Study

  • Tranströmer has had a lifelong interest in psychology, and he has worked for many years as a psychologist in Västerås, Sweden. How does "Answers to Letters" relate to the field of psychology? Can you find other examples of poems that reflect themes related to psychology in The Wild Market-Square in other collections of Tranströmer's poetry? How do these poems bring out psychological ideas and how do psychological theories improve or change your understanding of them? Do some research into the theories of famous twentieth-century psychologists such as Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung in order to construct your answer.
  • Robert Bly is Tranströmer's friend and chief advocate in the United States. Read some of Bly's poetry, such as This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years (1979), and discuss the similarities and differences between Bly's and Tranströmer's poetry. Choose a poem of Bly's to compare in depth with "Answers to Letters," taking into account poetic technique and approaches to similar themes. Or, after reading some of Bly's nonfiction essays and criticism in addition to selections of his poetry, explain why you think Bly might have developed such an interest in Tranströmer's work.
  • One of the most important Swedish artists since World War II is the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Watch Bergman's film Fanny and Alexander (1982), as well as some of his earlier classics such as The Seventh Seal (1956). How do you think Fanny and Alexander relates to "Answers to Letters?" How does Bergman's style compare to Tranströmer's? How do you think each artist is suited to his medium? Compare the portrayal of Sweden in their works, as well as their common imagery and their explorations of psychology and the unconscious.
  • Tranströmer has published numerous collections of poetry over the years. Read some of his early material, some of his work during the 1960s and 1970s, and some of the other poems in The Wild Market-Square. How has his style changed over time? How have his techniques, themes, and subject matter changed, and what are some of the key ways in which his recent poetry is unique, innovative, and different? Discuss what makes "Answers to Letters" distinctive, and compare it to another poem that you think addresses similar issues.

Stanza five's solution to this problem, which consists of the speaker's proposal to answer the letters when he is dead "and can at last concentrate," or at least "far away from here so I can find myself again," is quite contradictory. This process seems to involve straying off and "vanish[ing] in the crowd," another example of escaping from time, while simultaneously requiring a specific point in time, when he is "newly arrived" in the big city. Concluding the poem with the image of a fixed point in an "endless mass," or capital "T" in an infinite amount of text, Tranströmer highlights the contradiction between being within and without time. Although one letter is, in a sense, meaningless in an endless string of letters, it is still a unique and individual point in time, even if the same letter will be repeated over and over again. The "answers to letters" are only possible at a particular point in time, but the answers are also only possible when the speaker has stepped outside of time and can see the whole picture.


"Answers to Letters" is, in part, a journey of self-discovery. This journey begins as soon as the letter arrives, but it is not explicit until, in the third stanza, the speaker discusses hearing "yourself" on the other side of a wall in time's labyrinth; here it becomes clear that the speaker is searching for his own identity, not for another person who wrote the letter. The journey to find the "self" then builds until it reaches the climax in the line: "Or at least so far away from here that I can find myself again." This sentence, which ties directly back to the initial image of a letter delivered twenty-six years ago yet "in panic" and "still breathing," suggests that Tranströmer sees a paradox in the search for the self. While the speaker needs to be close enough to understand the immediate and specific aspects of his identity, he also needs to remain far enough away to see the permanent and timeless essence of his selfhood. The poet may be suggesting that identity must always consist of a paradoxical combination of the timeless, permanent self, and the extremely specific, localized, and individual details that cannot describe anyone else.

The Unconscious

The search for identity (see above) is closely related, for Tranströmer, to the workings of the unconscious and conscious mind. The "fifth window" of stanza two, which is likely to be a reference to the unconscious mind, emphasizes that the unconscious self must relate and interact with the conscious self. While the unconscious self is a timeless and even vague or illogical phenomenon, the conscious self is located in a very specific timeframe and series of actions. A psychologist with a longstanding interest in the interaction between the unconscious and conscious worlds, Tranströmer is interested in expressing the ways in which these two worlds must combine, if their combination is possible, in order to form a whole and complete self, or an identity.


Prose Poetry

"Answers to Letters" is a prose poem in five stanzas, which means that it consists of five sections, in this case much like paragraphs, with lines of text that are not intended to have specific line breaks. The poem, therefore, reads almost like a very short story; it does not require its reader to pause over each line or sound out a specific "meter," or sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. Tranströmer maintains a careful rhythm of language, employs poetic techniques such as repetition, and balances each word carefully with those around it. But, because of the prose appearance of the text itself, each stanza appears to be a sort of independent thought written in the same prose style as one might use to answer a letter.

Metaphor and Simile

Tranströmer frequently uses the comparative devices of metaphor and simile, both of which are figures of speech that suggest a similarity between two objects or actions (although a simile is characterized by the use of the words "as" or "like"). As many critics have suggested, Tranströmer's metaphors and similes do not merely serve as descriptive tools; they are often used to transform the reader's experience of reality. They involve rapid shifts to ideas that may seem unrelated to the "tenor," or the original source of the comparison.

This technique of liberal association, which often seems illogical, is an element of Tranströmer's poetry that some critics have associated with Surrealism. Poets whom Tranströmer admired and by whom he was influenced, the French Surrealists placed a great deal of emphasis on the workings of unconscious thought, and the melding of conscious and unconscious worlds. Tranströmer, whose interest in the unconscious mind connects to his lifelong career as a psychologist, may have similar aims when he employs a unique spectrum of freely associated comparisons in "Answers to Letters."

Historical Context

Sweden in the Early 1980s

Swedish politics were preoccupied with questioning the policy of neutrality, which had been in place since World War II, after a Soviet submarine ran aground near a Swedish naval base in 1981. The early 1980s in Sweden were also marked by the reelection of the socialist Social Democratic Party, which had been in power for forty-four years when a coalition of non-socialist parties won the election of 1976. An economic downturn led to a Social Democrat victory in 1982, and a return to the policies of the Swedish "welfare" state, which places a large emphasis on redistribution of wealth and an extensive network of social services. Schools, universities, health care, pensions, and various economic support schemes in Sweden were funded entirely through taxation.

Swedish Poetry after World War II

Until the mid-1960s, Swedish poetry was predominantly associated with high modernism and "formalism," or poetry that placed an emphasis on structure and style as opposed to content. T. S. Eliot was one of the most influential critics and poets to espouse this view and, although it was rapidly going out of fashion in the years following World War II, it remained popular in Sweden for some years. By the 1960s, however, a younger generation of poets was emerging with a tendency to focus on political content and a directly engaging style. As Joanna Bankier writes in her literary biography of Tranströmer, "Swedish writers and poets coming of age in the 1960s began to feel that aesthetic form and aesthetic pleasure might be obstacles to empathy, hindrances evoking indecency in the face of human suffering."

These writers, as Bankier observes, disdained the distanced and measured tone, which they associated with writers of the previous generation. The divide between formalism and politicized or "raw" poetry grew less urgent during the 1970s, but traces of these two aesthetic approaches remained an important issue amongst Swedish poets. Tranströmer himself had been, perhaps unfairly, associated with the formalists and condemned by many in the younger generation. By the time The Wild Market-Square was published in 1983, however, it was generally acknowledged that he had been engaged in numerous experiments in form since the 1960s.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1980s: In Sweden, the environment and nuclear energy, along with questions over the Swedish policy of neutrality, are the major political issues of the day.
    Today: Sweden is a member of the European Union (since 1995), but Swedish voters decline to join the common European currency in 2003, a vote that went ahead just days after the shocking assassination of Sweden's foreign minister. Like the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister in 1986, investigators are unable to determine the motive of the killer.
  • 1980s: In the United States, Ronald Reagan, a Republican and former actor, is president. The decade marks the advent of household computer technology and an atmosphere of economic conservatism.
    Today: Republican George W. Bush is president of the United States, and the social agenda of the government is more conservative since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
  • 1980s: The Social Democratic Party regains control in Sweden, and the country recovers from the economic downturn that marked the late 1970s. Sweden has a reputation as a country with one of the most extensive social service networks in the world.
    Today: Sweden retains its extensive social service network and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. The Swedish economy is growing faster than others in most of Western Europe.


The artistic movement known as Surrealism was founded by the French poet and critic André Breton in the 1920s. Surrealism was heavily influenced by the preceding movement of Dadaism, which stressed irrationality and anarchy, and both movements were a reaction against the rationalistic European culture that, some artists believed, led to the horrors of World War I. But Surrealism is unique in its emphasis on positive expression, unconscious thought, and the melding of the unconscious and conscious worlds. Breton and other Surrealist poets became known for free-association and a startling psychological, illogical thought process.

Aside from the poets who were working directly under Breton's Surrealist manifesto, Surrealist thought had a wide-ranging influence in literature, art, theater, and film. It has been linked to Samuel Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd as well as with the stream-of-consciousness writing technique practiced by James Joyce and others. Although he has also been associated with "formalism," Tranströmer is known to have an interest in Surrealism and his poetry often exhibits some of the leaps of unconscious association for which Surrealists became known.

Critical Overview

Swedish critics initially associated Tranströmer with the high modernist "formalist" tradition characteristic of his generation. The poet never strictly conformed to this description; his work changed drastically over time, he engaged in numerous experiments in form, and many critics, including Urban Torhamn, have acknowledged his connection to the Surrealist movement. But Tranströmer was nevertheless associated with formalism, particularly when, in the 1960s, a young and radical generation were fiercely advocating a politicized and direct poetic style. As Joanna Bankier notes in her Dictionary of Literary Biography entry on the poet, during this time of change, "critics took issue with Tranströmer's craftsmanship and formal restraint."

This stigma remained with Tranströmer for many years, although in the United States, due particularly to Robert Bly's championing, he retained a prestigious reputation as an innovative and liberal poet. Describing why the younger Swedish generation disavowed Tranströmer's style, Bly writes in his 1990 article "Tomas Tranströmer and 'The Memory'":

He likes this "suspension," where objects float in a point of view that cannot be identified as "Marxist" or "conservative," right or left. During the sixties many critics in Sweden demanded that each poet commit himself or herself to a Marxist view, or at least concede that documentaries are the only socially useful form of art.

As the trend that began with the generation of the 1960s grew less pronounced, however, Swedish critics began once again to consider Tranströmer a unique master. Bankier describes the recent criticism of the poet as wide-ranging, often treating his work as a "consideration of his language or an intertextual examination." "Answers to Letters" has received little individual critical attention, but the discussions of The Wild Market-Square or Tranströmer's work as a whole are often highly applicable, such as Gary Lenhart's description of how "Tomas Tranströmer's poems occupy 'the slot between waking and sleep,'" in his article "Hard Edge Fog."


Scott Trudell

Trudell is a freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, Trudell discusses the journey of self-discovery in "Answers to Letters," arguing that the speaker uses the poem to answer the letters of his past and define who he is.

The central metaphors in Tranströmer's poem are the letters that the speaker desires to answer, from the initial letter that arrived twenty-six years before to the "unanswered letters" that "pile up" in the final stanza, but it is not entirely clear what these metaphors represent. They could, in part, be meant to signify a friend or lover, or the memory of such a person who has been lost or left behind. Or, given the fact that the initial letter is "in panic" and the speaker seems anxious to clear the clouds associated with the letters, Tranströmer may be implying that the letters signify unanswered questions about the world that have reemerged to haunt the speaker. Perhaps this is why they have become so pressing and confusing as to "make the sunbeams lusterless."

But there is also a sense in which the letters are representations of the speaker's very personal past, or artifacts of who he used to be. Particularly when he uses the phrase, "you can hear yourself walking past there," while discussing the "labyrinth" of time, Tranströmer appears to be implying that the letters should be understood as messages from himself, as if his past self is communicating with his present self. Indeed, it becomes particularly clear in the final sentences of the poem that the letters, which the speaker can only answer once he "can find [him]self again," are closely associated with his identity. The conflict for the speaker is one of answering who he is, and the phrase "Answers to Letters" may refer to his need to declare his selfhood and "answer" himself.

For the speaker, the two main aspects of this process are "find[ing] myself," and declaring this identity in the form of a poem. Neither of these goals are particularly easy, and it becomes clear in "Answers to Letters" that both are precarious and inexact processes. Nevertheless, the poem both acknowledges the complexity of such a journey of self-discovery and manages to formulate an answer to the speaker's persistent questions. By the end of the poem, it becomes clear that although his identity comes very close to vanishing altogether into something that he cannot understand, Tranströmer has accomplished this unique and individual journey, and left behind a poem that is itself a visionary declaration of his selfhood.

The first element of the poem's theme of identity is the speaker's search for the diverse elements of his "self." Tranströmer dramatizes this journey with a number of careful poetic techniques, but perhaps the most important of these is the way in which he weaves together the past and present, the specific and the general, in order to display the contradictory nature of identity and suit the imagery of the poem to the story it tells. "Answers to Letters" describes a series of events that move closer to a specific point, such as "125th Street" or "the toad in the wet grass of an August night," but simultaneously seem to move further away from anything specific, such as "countless thresholds of the sea" and "the endless mass of the text." This relationship between the focused, specific, and rational, and the general, timeless, and irrational, is the key stylistic feature the poet uses to visualize and express the process of introspection. Examining it closely reveals some of Tranströmer's most important ambitions in the poem.

The paradox between the specific and the timeless is so appropriate for representing the process of self-discovery because, as Tranströmer recognizes, identity is divided between these two extremes. Each person's "self" is comprised of the particular actions and events of a lifetime, or everything that might fit into a biography, as well as the unique and permanent world of inner thoughts that make up what some would call a "spirit." It is only in the combination of these two aspects that the speaker seems to have the chance to discover his identity, which is why Tranströmer insists on combining paradoxical images in order to envision the process of self-declaration. "Answers to Letters" does not simply point out that the self has these two elements; it probes the possibility of combining them into something coherent within the structure and limits of the discipline of psychology.

In his essay "Hard Edge Fog," Gary Lenhart describes the "vocabulary of contraries" in Tranströmer's poetry as a "landscape" that is "at once tangible and mysterious. Despite the recurring Baltic fog, the objects in his dreams have sharp edges and a particular insistence." Critics such as Lenhart and Robert Bly have connected this poetic style, which is readily apparent in "Answers to Letters," to Tranströmer's interest in the relationship between the unconscious and conscious worlds. When the "thunder and storm" of the fifth window occurs at the same time as the "day shines clear and still" in the other four windows, or the "countless thresholds of the sea" go on "migrating" at the same time as the location is fixed to the leaps of a toad on an August night, it is clear that the unfathomable, endless, and obscure world of the unconscious is closely intertwined with the clear, exact, and ordered world of the conscious.

The paradoxes of the final stanza make it particularly clear that these worlds need to combine in order for the speaker to find what he thinks of as his "self." His identity is incomplete without acknowledging the vast world of his unconscious, but as soon as he turns to face the fifth window and confront this part of his self, the speaker seems in danger of "vanish[ing] in the crowd" altogether. Because the unconscious world is timeless and unfixed, a limitless landscape of dreams, the brief meeting of unconscious and conscious selves threatens to result in an "endless mass of text," leaving the speaker without the coherent self-understanding he seeks. The idea that the speaker can only answer the letters when he is "dead and can at last concentrate" emphasizes this problem and highlights the additional paradox that the speaker cannot genuinely find his identity until he no longer physically exists, when he is an entirely fixed and lifeless subject.

Nevertheless, the speaker qualifies this statement with the sentence, "Or at least so far away from here that I can find myself again," which suggests a more successful outcome in the struggle to reconcile his conscious and unconscious worlds. The sentences that follow this one form a more specific vision of this reconciliation, envisioning the very specific location of 125th Street's "wind on the street of dancing garbage" and the paradox of "a capital T in the endless mass of the text." The fact that this "endless mass of text" is the final image of the poem reinforces the possibility that the speaker has been lost in the faraway realm of the unconscious into which he has journeyed, but the capital "T" is a powerful balance to this threat. Since "T" is the first letter of Tranströmer's first and last names, it is a key sign of hope that the speaker, and the poet, have reached the essence of the self.

The merging of the narrative voice of the poem and the poet himself is not a subtle trick or quirky touch in the final line; it is central to the search for identity in "Answers to Letters." By claiming explicitly that he is the identity in question, Tranströmer is urging the reader to regard the poem as more than a mere dramatization of a fictional search for selfhood. The "capital T" is a sign that the poem is a self-conscious declaration that consists of, as its title suggests, "answers" to the poet's own "letters," or unanswered questions and memories from his past. In this sense, the entire prose poem, or the individual stanzas of indented prose themselves, might be considered "answers" to the past and declarations of identity.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Tranströmer's New Collected Poems (1997), translated by Robin Fulton, contains all of the poet's major collections. From the elegant verse and striking imagery of 17 Poems to the diverse and challenging meditations in The Wild Market-Square (1983) and The Sad Gondola (1996), this book is the definitive source to explore after "Answers to Letters."
  • This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years (1979) is a collection of poetry by Tranströmer's friend, translator, and enthusiast Robert Bly. Many of the poems in this volume, like "Answers to Letters," offer a visionary meditation on the duality of consciousness.
  • André Breton: Selected Works (2003), edited by Mark Polizzotti, is an excellent introduction to the poetry of the famous surrealist author André Breton, including helpful biographical information and important selections from his prose.
  • Robert Bly's American Poetry: Wilderness and Domesticity (1990) is a passionate work of nonfiction that articulates Bly's theory of poetry and justifies his long-standing attack on many of the poets popular with the university elite.
  • The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (1989) provides an important body of work by the famous twentieth-century Austrian writer, whose brilliant poetry ranges from mystical to philosophical to historical.

Like much of the poetry in The Wild Market-Square, Tranströmer allows a vision or possibility such as this declaration of selfhood to remain floating in the reader's mind. He does not insist upon strictly fixing his meaning, but allows the stanzas to remain partly in his own very personal world of meaning and partly in the more general and understandable form of answers to the vague past. This allows the reader some access into Tranströmer's theories of the melding of unconscious and conscious worlds, and it establishes an important commentary on the ambiguous and contrary nature of identity. But, perhaps more importantly, it also offers a visionary glimpse into the poet's extremely unique and personal understanding of himself.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on "Answers to Letters," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Robert Bly

In the following essay, Bly provides an overview of Tranströmer's life and works and asserts that Tranströmer "leads a movement of poetry … toward a poetry of silence and depths."

1. Tomas Tranströmer seems to me the best poet to appear in Sweden for some years. He comes from a long line of ship pilots who worked in and around the Stockholm Archipelago. He is at home on islands. His face is thin and angular, and the swift, spare countenance reminds one of Hans Christian Andersen's or the young Kierkegaard's. He has a strange genius for the image—images come up almost effortlessly. The images flow upward like water rising in stone lonely place, in the swamps, or deep fir woods.

Tranströmer's poems, so vivid in English, show the ability of certain poetry to travel to another culture and actually arrive there. As Tranströmer said in a letter to the Hungarian poets, published in the magazine Új Írás in 1977: "Poetry has an advantage from the start…. Poetry requires no heavy, vulnerable apparatus that has to be lugged around; it isn't dependent on temperamental performers, dictatorial directors, bright producers with irresistible ideas." He also remarked, "Poems are active meditations; they want to wake us up, not put us to sleep." At many places I go in this country, I meet people for whom Tranströmer is an awakener. They receive the fragrance of the depth from him; they see the light suddenly released by one of his brief quatrains. His work has become a strong influence now on many younger American poets.

Swedish society is most famously a welfare society, the welfare society; it is perhaps the first society in history that has had the means to adopt as an ideal the abolition of poverty. But it is also a technological society like ours, and one given to secular solutions. Tranströmer reports how difficult it is in such a society to keep in touch with inner richness. What happens to the "vertical" longings, the longings for the divine? A poem called "Below Freezing" brings up this issue.

We are at a party that doesn't love us. Finally the party lets its mask fall and shows what it is: a shunting station for freight cars. In the fog cold giants stand on their tracks. A scribble of chalk on cardoors.

One can't say it aloud, but there is a lot of repressed violence here. That is why the furnishings seem so heavy. And why is it so difficult to see the other thing present: a spot of sun that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces, a biblical saying never set down: "Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you."

I work the next morning somewhere else. I drive there in a hum through the dawning hour which resembles a dark blue cylinder. Orion hangs over the frost. Children stand in a silent clump, waiting for the school-bus, the children no one prays for. The light grows as gradually as our hair.

"The children no one prays for" is a painful line. Tranströmer is not coming down on the side of orthodox Christianity, yet a part of him is aware that children are deprived, even endangered, by not being prayed for. There is more light now than in primitive times, but it moves over "an unaware forest of flickering faces."

2. Tomas Tranströmer was born in Stockholm on 15 April 1931. He is an only child. His father and mother divorced when he was three; he and his mother lived after that in an apartment in the working-class district of Stockholm. He studied music and psychology and still plays the piano enthusiastically, as his recent poem on Schubert makes clear.

The early fifties were a rather formal time, both here and in Sweden, and Tranströmer began by writing highly formal poems, all elements measured. His first book, 17 dikter (17 Poems), published in 1954, contains several poems written in classical meters adapted from the Latin. That collection includes many baroque elements in its language. Tranströmer's language has gradually evolved into a more spoken Swedish, and he has written both prose poetry and free verse; but, as he remarked during a recent interview published inPoetry East: "Often there is a skeleton somewhere in the poem with a regular number of beats and so on in each line. You don't have to know that, but for me it's important."

Tranströmer's second book, Hemligheter på vägen (Secrets on the Road), contained fourteen poems and appeared four years later. In 1962, after another gap of four years, he published Den halvfärdiga himlen (Half-Finished Heaven), with twenty-one poems—fifty-two poems in all in about ten years. In 1966 came Klanger och spår (Resonance and Foot-Tracks) and in 1970 Mörkerseende (Eng. Night Vision). Three years later he published Stigar (Paths) and in 1974 a long poem, Östersjöar (Eng. Baltics), describing the island where his family on his father's side have lived for generations.

Tranströmer's early poetry could be described as baroque romantic, with elements visible from both the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. Like the romantics, Tranströmer loves to travel, and a chance encounter may evolve into a poem; but Göran Printz-Påhlson notes a crucial difference between Tranströmer's work and that of the romantics: "The traveler is brought to a halt, and the experience is imprinted with ferocious energy, but not interpreted." Tranströmer works slowly and steadily on poems and often writes only seven or eight a year. That may be one reason why his poems have so much weight.

Tranströmer worked for some years as a psychologist at the boys' prison in Linköping and then moved with his family to Västerås, about sixty miles west of Stockholm. There he works as a psychologist for a labor organization funded by the state. His responsibilities involve helping juvenile delinquents reenter society, assisting persons with physical disabilities in choosing a career, and work with parole offenders and drug rehabilitation. His family consists of two daughters, Paula and Emma, and his wife Monica, who finished her training as a nurse a few years ago and has worked from time to time with refugees who are resettling in Sweden.

Tranströmer's three most recent books have been Sanningsbarriären (Eng. Truth Barriers) in 1978, Det vilda torget (Eng. The Wild Marketplace) in 1983, and last year a fine new collection, including some of his strongest poems, För levande och döda (Eng. "For Living and Dead").

3. Tranströmer values his poems not so much as artifacts but rather as meeting places. Images from widely separated worlds meet in his verse. In the letter to the Hungarian poets he said, "My poems are meeting places…. What looks at first like a confrontation turns out to be connection." The poem "Street Crossing" describes an encounter between the ancient Swedish earth and a Stockholm street.

The street's massive life swirls around me;
it remembers nothing and desires nothing.
Far under the traffic, deep in earth,
the unborn forest awaits, still, for a thousand years.

He remains "suspended" so as to hear things.

one evening in June: the transistor told me the
latest on the Extra Session: Kosygin, Eban.
One or two thoughts bored their way in
despairingly.… I saw heard it from a suspension
bridge together with a few boys. Their bicycles
buried in the bushes—only the horns
stood up.
("Going with the Current")

He likes this "suspension," where objects float in a point of view that cannot be identified as "Marxist" or "conservative," right or left. During the sixties many critics in Sweden demanded that each poet commit himself or herself to a Marxist view, or at least concede that documentaries are the only socially useful form of art. Tranströmer has received several attacks for resisting that doctrine. Art still needs the unconscious, he believes; that has not changed. He also believes that a poem needs a place for the private, the quirky, the religious, the unexplainable, the human detail that the collective cannot classify. "Out in the Open," for example, is neither a nature poem, nor a political poem, nor a religious poem. One of its purposes evidently is to draw from all these sections of psychic experience without choosing among them.

Sun burning. The plane comes in low
throwing a shadow shaped like a giant cross that
rushes over the ground.
A man is sitting in the field poking at something.
The shadow arrives.
For a fraction of a second he is right in the centre
of the cross.

I have seen the cross hanging in the cool church vaults. At times it resembles a split-second shot of something moving at tremendous speed.

One of the most beautiful qualities in Tranströmer's poems is the space we feel in them. I think one reason for this is that the four or five main images which appear in each of his poems come from widely separated sources in the psyche. His poems are a sort of railway station where trains that have come enormous distances stand briefly in the same building. One train may have some Russian snow still lying on the undercarriage, and another may have Mediterranean flowers still fresh in the compartments and Ruhr soot on the roofs.

The poems are mysterious because of the distance the images have come to get there. Mallarmé believed there should be mystery in poetry, and he urged poets to get it by removing the links that tie the poem to its occasion in the real world. In Tranströmer's poems the link to the worldly occasion is stubbornly kept, yet the poems have a mystery and surprise that never fade, even on many readings.

4. Tranströmer has said that when he first began to write, in the early fifties, it still seemed possible to compose a nature poem into which nothing technological entered. Now, he says, he feels that many objects created by technology have become almost parts of nature, and he makes sure in his poetry that technology and its products appear. Some sights brought about by technology help him see more vividly a countryside scene: "All at once I notice the hills on the other side of the lake: / their pine has been clear-cut. They resemble the shaved / skull-sections of a patient about to have a brain operation." Perhaps nature can help you see a semi: "The semi-trailer crawls through the fog. / It is the lengthened shadow of a dragonfly larva / crawling over the murky lakebottom." Man-made objects are not necessarily without life.

I drive through a village at night, the houses step out into the headlights—they are awake now, they want a drink.

Houses, barns, nameposts, deserted trailers—now they take on life. Human beings sleep:

some can sleep peacefully, others have tense faces as though in hard training for eternity.

They don't dare to let go even in deep sleep.

They wait like lowered gates while the mystery rolls past.

5. Recent poems bring forward a fresh emphasis: the poems circle in an intense way around the experience of borders, boundaries of nations, the passage from one world to the next, the weighty instant as we wake up and step from the world of dream to this world, the corridors through which the dead invade our world, the intermediate place between life and art, the contrast between Schubert's music and Schubert, "a plump young man from Vienna" who sometimes "slept with his glasses on."

The title of a recent collection, Sanningsbarriären, translated as both Truth Barriers and The Truth Barrier, suggests a customs gate. Tranströmer remarked that truth exists only at the border between worlds. On this side of the border there is doctrine, and on the other side infinity, so that we experience truth only at the moment of crossing. But, alas, there are guards who do not want us to cross.

In "Start of a Late Autumn Novel" Tranströmer, inside an uninhabited island house, finds himself neither asleep nor awake: "A few books I've just read sail by like schooners on the way to the Bermuda Triangle, where they will disappear without a trace." This description is rueful and funny. He's right: sometimes we finish a book and can't remember a word. As the poem continues, he lies half asleep and hears a thumping sound outside. He listens to it—it is something being held down by earth. It beats like a heart under a stethoscope; it seems to vanish and return. Or perhaps there is some being inside the wall who is knocking, "someone who belongs to the other world, but got left here anyway, he thumps, wants to go back. Too late. Wasn't on time down here, wasn't on time up there, didn't make it on board in time." So apparently a successful passage to the other world and back has to do with timing: the Celtic fairy tales also emphasize that. The poem ends with his amazement the next morning when he sees an oak branch, a torn-up tree root, and a boulder. When, in solitude, we see certain objects, they seem to be "left behind when the ship sailed"; Tranströmer says they are monsters from the other world "whom I love."

A poem called "December Evening '72" begins: "Here I come the invisible man, perhaps in the employ / of some huge Memory that wants to live at this moment. And I drive by / the white church that's locked up. A saint made of wood is inside, / smiling helplessly, as if someone had taken his glasses." The first two lines suggest that Tranströmer as an artist believes himself to be a servant of the Memory. He writes a poem when some huge Memory wants to cross over into this world; and this view of art seems more European than American. Often in America the artist believes his or her job is to tell the truth about one's own life: confessional poetry certainly implies that. Following that concept of art, many workshop poets comb their personal memory and write poems about their childhood, filling the poems with a clutter of detail. This clutter sometimes ensures that the piece will remain "a piece of writing" and will not become "a work of art."

Tranströmer has the odd sense that the Great Memory can only come in when the artist is alert to it. While on guard duty in a defense unit a few years ago, he wrote:

Task: to be where I am.
Even when I'm in this solemn and absurd
role: I am still the place
where creation does some work on itself.
Dawn comes, the sparse tree trunks
take on color now, the frostbitten
forest flowers form a silent search party
after something that has disappeared in the dark.
But to be where I am … and to wait:
I am full of anxiety, obstinate, confused.
Things not yet happened are already here!
I feel that. They're just out there:
a murmuring mass outside the barrier.
They can only slip in one by one.
They want to slip in. Why? They do
one by one. I am the turnstile.
("Sentry Duty")

He experiences the Great Memory as "somebody who keeps pulling on my arm each time I try to write." Again we feel ourselves at a boundary, being influenced by something on the other side. In "From the Winter of 1947" the dead press through into our world, as the stains in wallpaper: "They want to have their portraits painted." And in "Street Crossing," for one second as he crosses a busy Stockholm street, the poet has the sensation that the street and the earth below it have eyes and can see him.

Tranströmer begins his Schubert poem by describing New York from an overlook, "where with one glance you take in the houses where eight million human beings live." He mentions subway cars, coffee cups, desks, elevator doors. Still, "I know also—statistics to the side—that at this moment in some room down there Schubert is being played, and for that person the notes are more real than all the rest." And what are notes? When sounds are absorbed and shaped by and inside, say, a string quartet, they contain vibrations that resonate somewhere inside us and awaken "feelings" that we seem not to have felt in daily life. There is evidently a layer of consciousness that runs alongside our life, above or below, but is not it. Perhaps it is older. Certain works of art make it their aim to rise up and pierce this layer, or layers. Or they open to allow in "memories" from this layer. Some artists—Tranströmer, Pasternak, and Akhmatova come especially to mind—keep the poem spare and clear so it can pierce the layers, or leave room for the Memory.

The art of Schubert puts Tranströmer at a boundary between worlds, and at such a boundary he sees astonishing truths.

The five instruments play. I go home through warm woods
where the earth is springy under my feet
curl up like someone still unborn, sleep, roll on so weightlessly
into the future, suddenly understand that plants are thinking.

Art helps us, he says, as a banister helps the climber on a dark stairwell. The banister finds its own way in the dark. In certain pieces of music happiness and suffering weigh exactly the same. The depths are above us and below us at the same instant. The melody line is a stubborn "humming sound that this instant is with us / upward into / the depths."

Swedish magazines often fill themselves with abstract hallucinatory poetry, typewriter poetry, alphabet poetry—poems that are really the nightmares of overfed linguists, of logical positivists with a high fever. Tranströmer, simply by publishing his books, leads a movement of poetry in the opposite direction, toward a poetry of silence and depths.

Source: Robert Bly, "Tomas Tranströmer and 'The Memory,'" in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 4, Autumn 1990, pp. 570–73.

Joanna Bankier

In the following essay, Bankier likens Tranströmer's poetry to surreal art and classical music in its approach to modern society.

In a poem entitled "Galleriet" (The Gallery) Tomas Tranströmer records how, staying overnight at a motel, he is haunted by faces appearing on the wall. They have a dreamlike quality and impose themselves on him, demanding attention and compassion.

Jag låg över på ett motell vid E3.
I mitt rum där fanns en lukt som jag känt förut
bland de asiatiska samlingarna på ett museum
masker tibetanska japanska mot en ljus vägg.
som tränger fram genom glömskans vita vägg
I stayed overnight at a motel by the E3.
In my room a smell I'd felt before
in the oriental halls of a museum:
masks Tibetan Japanese on a pale wall.
But it's not masks now, it's faces
forcing through the white wall of oblivion
(TSP, 140)

As in so many other poems, the poet has been following the flow of traffic, a figure he often uses to suggest socialization. When the flow is arrested, the realization erupts into consciousness that socialization imposes a role and makes life into a set of ritualized performances which allow only for a minimum of stylized movement.

I karriären rör vi oss stelt steg
för steg som i ett no-spel
med masker, skrikande sång: Jag, det är Jag!
Den som slogs ut
representeras av en hoprullad filt.
We move through our career stiffly, step by step,
it's like a No play
white masks, high-pitched song: It's me, it's me!
The one who's failed
is represented by a rolled-up blanket. (TSP, 142)

An inauthentic self masks the lack of true identity. This fabricated self is the individual's prime commodity in a society governed by the laws of the market. It must be vociferously displayed and aggressively defended in the struggle for survival, not so much biological survival as social, since the good life is identified with a successful career and a failure in this respect cannot be compensated; it is beyond redemption: "The one who's failed / is represented by a rolled-up blanket." To improve one's social status amounts to a "moral" obligation. It is as if, deprived of a spiritual dimension, we still strive to rise above ourselves and have replaced Plato's ladder with social climbing.

Ours is a world in which, quite literally, time is money. People who work in the industrial and commercial machinery become caught up in the profit-making and time-saving frenzy and come to regard others as well as themselves in terms borrowed from economics. The self is no longer endowed with intrinsic value and becomes purely instrumental. It is treated like any other commodity. It has been reduced to what it can produced, accomplish, and achieve and is subject to the usual advertising process: the mask makes itself known with a "high-pitched song: It's me, it's me!"

Neither is it easy to keep the social world at bay; it has a way of invading even our leisure. The habit of time saving will not let itself be confined to the hours between nine and five, Tranströmer writes in an earlier poem: "Fritidens måne kretsar kring planeten Arbete / med dess massa och tyngd.—Det är så de vill ha det"; "The moon of leisure circles the planet Work / with its mass and weight.—It's as they wish to have it." The social role cannot be thrown off. The mask adheres to the bearer's face; the professional persona invades all areas of life, narrowing our vision.

En man känner på världen med yrket som en
Han vilar en stund mitt på dagen och har lagt ifrån
sig handskarna på hyllan.
Där växer de plötsligt, breder ut sig
och mörklägger hela huset inifrån.
A man feels the world with his work like a glove.
He rests for a while at midday having laid aside the
gloves on the shelf.
There they suddenly grow, spread
and black out the whole house from inside.
(TSP, 78)

The negation of the intrinsic value of human life has brought about a state of affairs where everyone is in bondage: "Välkommen till de autentiska gallerierna! / Välkommen till de autentiska galärerna! / De autentiska gallren!" (SD, 146); "Welcome to the authentic galleries! / Welcome to the authentic galleys! / The authentic grilles!" (TSP, 140).

From time to time criticism of the social machinery is voiced and someone exposes the general state of misery. Someone writes a book, acquires followers; committees are set up to investigate, memorandums and reports are issued. For a while the surface of things is ruffled by agitation; debates around dinner tables grow more intense. Then things go back to normal.

Hör samhällets mekaniska självförebråelser
stora fläktens röst
som den konstgjorda blåsten i gruvgångarna
sexhundra meter nere. (SD, 149)
Listen to society's mechanical self-reproaches
the voice of the big fan
like the artificial wind in mine tunnels
six hundred meters down.

These self-reproaches must remain without effect, however, as every culture casts a spell in the shape of an ideology whose nature remains hidden from the insiders. Not only value but also perception is governed by a set of culturally shared conventional notions and ruling metaphors, and any change would require it change in vision: "Men vi ser de här händelserna från fel håll: ett stenröse istället för sfinxens ansikte" (D, 190); "But we see these events from the wrong angle; a heap of stones instead of the face of the sphinx."

Our passionate striving for knowledge cancels out the mystery at the heart of existence. Skepticism imposes limitations of its own kind, whereas Tranströmer would want us at least to entertain the notion that things are different from the way they appear. Above all he wants us to be able to "see things from a fresh angle where everything is not already set according to the usual stereotypes" (TT). Of course, this is easier said than done, as any neurotic could testify. The insider is the last one to acknowledge his own blindness. Or, as Tranströmer writes in a poem from the early seventies:

Två sanningar närmar sig varann. En kommer
inifrån, en kommer utifrån
och där de möts har man en chans att få se sig
Den som märker vad som håller på att hända ropar
förtvivlat: "Stanna!
vad som helst, bara jag slipper känna mi själv."
Two truths approach each other, one comes from
the inside and one from outside
where they meet there is a chance to get to know
The one who notices what is about to happen cries
out: "Stop!
anything but getting to know myself."

Common wisdom has it that poetry makes nothing happen. It does not send merchandise across the oceans, stop wars, or end poverty. Yet poetry can at times be efficacious in breaking spells and illusions. It can point to alternatives and illuminate spots of blindness. It can show the value of looking at an old problem from a new perspective. It can be a training ground for a flexible, playful, and, as far as it goes, unencumbered vision.

Such a motivation seems to underlie Tranströmer's delight in reversals of perspective, imaginative solutions, invitations to look at contemporary reality "through the inverted periscope." He loves to unsettle our conventional notions: set the static in violent motion, make what appears to be moving into something absolutely still.

Andas lugnt … En okänd blå materia är fastnaglad
vid stolarna.
Guldnitarna flög in med oerhörd hastighet
och tvärstannade
som om de aldrig varit annat än stillhet.
Breathe calmly … An unknown blue material is
nailed to the chair
The gold upholstery tacks flew in with unheard-of
and stopped abruptly
as if they had never been anything but stillness.

Or he puts together images made up of incongruous elements: "the Ship, / like the cloud weightless hanging in its space / And the water round its prow is motionless, / dead calm. And yet it's storming!"

Where have we seen these incongruities before? Of course, the surrealists! The American poet Leslie Ullman once said that some of Tranströmer's poems remind her of René Magritte's paintings, and indeed they do. There is a similar clarity of vision and outline. There is a similar appearance of ordinariness in the details. There is the balanced composition. The greatest affinity, however, lies in the shuffling of conventional perceptions, the insistent breaking up of the automatism of associations. Where a bright blue sky makes us expect daytime, Magritte gives us lighted streetlamps in the lower part of the picture. Where "ship" makes us associate to weight and gravity, Tranströmer gives us levity and suspension in space, the incongruity of storm and dead calm in the same picture.

Surely these permutations must exercise our vision, flex the muscles of our imagination, make us more receptive to seeing "other things that also exist." This ambition is another, more general point of affinity between Tranströmer and the surrealists, especially Eluard, whom he read very early and of whom he wrote in 1966:

Gick länge längs den antipoetiska muren.
Die Mauer. Inte se över.
Den vill omge vårt vuxna liv
i rutinstaden, rutinlandskapet.
Eluard rörde vid någon knapp
och muren öppnade sig
och trädgården visade sig.
Walked for a long time along the anti-poetry wall.
Die Mauer. It's forbidden to look above it.
It wants to surround our adult lives
in the routine city, in the routine landscape.
Eluard touched some kind of button
and the wall opened
and the garden appeared.

"Life is occupied territory," Tranströmer says in an interview in 1982. "Existence is locked into other people's decisions … all those people who put words in your mouth, who decide what you are supposed to see, what you are supposed to say. It's quite visible in a totalitarian state, but in a democracy…. Yet there are tiny cracks of freedom, safety valves. The task of the poem is to tend to those cracks, to keep them open" (TT). There is an anarchic, violent trait in the midst of the Tranströmeran mildness, a barely contained rage at what he considers a state of bondage. It would be possible to pursue at great length the poetic strategies he uses to escape it, but there are also other ways of keeping the tiny cracks of freedom open.

Since much of the socialization people undergo takes place below the level of consciousness—we get caught up in it the way we naturally begin to march in step when we hear military music—Tranströmer suggests places of refuge and escape. In several poems classical music is made to stand for freedom and peace and resilience, as in "Allegro," which appeared in book form in 1962.

Jag spelar Haydn efter en svart dag
och känner en enkel värme i händerna.
Tangenterna vill. Milda hammare slår.
Klangen är grön, livlig och stilla.
Klangen säger att friheten finns
och att någon inte ger kejsaren skatt.
Jag kör ner händerna i mina haydnfickor
och härmar en som ser lugnt på världen.
Jag hissar haydnflaggan—det betyder:
"Vi ger oss inte. Men vill fred."
Musiken är ett glashus på sluttningen
där stenarna flyger, stenarna rullar.
Och stenarna rullar tvärs igenom
men varje ruta förblir hel.
I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.
The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance is green, lively and calm.
The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn't pay tax to Caesar.
I push down my hands into my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking at the world calmly.
I hoist the Haydnflag—it signifies:
"We don't give in. But we want peace."
The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.
And the stones roll right through
but every pane stays whole. (TSP, 55)

After a day that has been more than usually trying, the poet plays Haydn on the piano. One imagines that if "the resonance is green, lively and calm," it must be because the outer world is dark and agitated. It is also a world of unfreedom, a material existence which must be given its due, a place where one must pay "tax to Caesar." Consciousness is beleaguered. The inner world is invaded by foreign patterns and rhythms.

It is not just that Haydn's music is a refuge. Tranströmer's stance in "Allegro" is one of heroic defiance. A similar stance of passive resistance, of heroism, is echoed in "Schubertiana," from Sanningsbarriären (1978; Eng. The Truth Barrier): "This music is so heroic, Annie says, and she is right." Although the tone is offhand and playfully ironic, the diction natural, and the occasion undramatic—the poet is playing the piano in a small circle of friends—the idea of heroism seems meant to be taken quite seriously. The music of Haydn and Schubert has a way of effecting a transformation of the temporal, rhythmic patterning of experience. Earlier in "Schubertiana" Tranströmer had been describing New York in images reminiscent of Eliot's "Unreal City."

I kvällsmörkret på en plats utanför New York, en utsiktspunkt där man med en enda blick kan omfatta åtta miljoner människors hem.

Jättestaden där borta är en lång flimrande driva, en spiralgalax från sidan.

Inne i galaxen skjuts kaffekoppar över disken, skyltfönstren tigger av förbipasserande, ett vimmel av skor som inte sätter några spår.

De klättrande brandstegarna, hissdörrarna som glider ihop, bakom dörrar med polislås ett ständigt svall av röster.

Hopsjunkna kroppar halvsover i tunnel-banevagnarna, de framrusande katakomberna.

In evening darkness a place outside New York, an outlook point where with one glance you can take in the homes of eight million people.

The giant city over there is a long shimmering drift, a spiral galaxy seen from the side.

Inside the galaxy coffee cups are pushed across the counter, shop windows beg from passersby, a whirl of shoes that leave no trace.

Climbing fire escapes, elevator doors that glide shut, behind doors with police locks a steady swell of voices.

Slumped over bodies doze in subway cars, the hurtling catacombs. (TSP, 143)

In Tranströmer's description of the city a few significant details are set in relief, making New York into a figure for the fragmentation and dehumanization of modern life. The city is first seen from a point so distant and superior that it can be taken in "with one glance," in an attitude of condemnation, almost of outrage.

When the poet/observer moves closer, it becomes possible to discern, not people, but parts of people: hands, feet, "slumped over bodies," and the things that they manipulate and use. Coffee cups are being pushed across counters by invisible hands; a throng of feet is moving up and down the streets, up and down the elevators. An identical mechanical rhythm has taken possession of them. It is as if the mechanical rhythm of the machine were catching, imposing itself in many subtle ways on the men and women who live in big cities and who are in constant contact with clocks, schedules, and conveyor belts. Eight hours a day, forty hours a week, time is patterned on the reiterated appearance of the next item on the conveyor belt, the next train arriving at the station, or the next appointment to be met. The "slumped over bodies [that] doze in subway cars," which Tranströmer likens to catacombs in motion, are not people; they are zombies caught in the powerful machinery which regulates their movements and hurls them forward. All the while "a whirl of shoes that leave no trace behind" reminds us that the city is an image for time passing without leaving the slightest trace. Everything is ephemeral, lives and dies in time; no substance, no essence survives beyond the fleeting moment when the sole of the shoe touches the pavement.

"To live means to leave traces," Walter Benjamin says, echoing the Proustian notion that existence is possessed only in memory (R, 155). The present moment leaves no trace in consciousness; there is no experience, no sense of being until the moment is relived in memory. Tranströmer's living dead, however, have no time for remembering; their lives are wholly swallowed up by the hectic rhythm of the metropolis.

New York, then, is presented as pure negativity, an image of modern industrialized technological society, a peculiarly modern form of evil. As such it is more a fictional place than a real one, a place seen through the mediating prism of literature, a bleak vision we have inherited from the nineteenth century. Tranströmer's New York, like the London or Paris of other modern texts, is the embodiment of an idea, "one of the major forms in which we become conscious of a central part of our experience and of the crisis of our society," to borrow a formulation from Raymond Williams. For Williams, this vision of the city is, as he says, "in the end as relentless and conventional as pastoral" (CC, 240). Tranströmer is keenly aware of the conventional nature of this bleak vision, weighted with the authority of a powerful modernist literary tradition. To balance it—the poem is among other things about the balance of good and evil—Tranströmer offers, simply, the music of Schubert: "Jag vet också—utan all statistik—att just nu spelas Schubert i något rum därborta och att för någon är de tonerna verkligare än allt det andra"; "I also know—without statistics—that right now Schubert is being played in some room over there and that for someone these sounds are more real than all the other" (TSP, 143).

The terms in which the argument is couched are deliberately paradoxical: music, the most fugitive and immaterial among the arts, is for some people more "real" than the colossal agglomeration of steel and concrete, the vast spread of buildings, of institutions, and the ten million lives caught up in its dehumanizing rhythm. One individual, intuitively recognized and acknowledged without recourse to "statistics," to scientific measurements, who is playing Schubert's music, outweighs the formidable pressure of the metropolis. Speaking of the people who would be unable to understand the message of Schubert's music, those whom the music is not addressing, Tranströmer writes: "the many who buy and sell people and believe that everyone can / be bought, don't recognize themselves here. / It is not their music."

As it turns out, looking at music as a subversive activity has a tradition of its own. An impassioned argument in favor of music as the form in which inner time is mirrored can be found in the writings of the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (MT, 247) and also in the texts of the neo-Marxist members of what is known as the Frankfurt School, in Ernst Bloch in particular, for whom music constituted a model for Utopia (MF, 143). How music can be the antidote to the metropolis is further developed in "Schubertiana:" "De fems stråkarna spelar. Jag går hem genom ljumma skogar med marken fjädrande under mig / kryper ihop som en ofödd, somnar, rullar viktlös in i framtiden, känner plåtslight att växterna har tankar" (D, 144); "The string quintet is playing. I go home through warm forests with the ground springy under me, / curl up like an embryo, fall asleep, roll weightless into the future, suddenly realize that plants have thoughts" (TSP, 144)

In the inner world—suggested by the childlike trust in "I go home"—time is elastic, stretches back to an existence before birth and forward into the yet-unformed future as well as down to a more archaic way of being where it becomes possible to perceive "that plants have thoughts." When one is listening to the string quintet, time becomes reversible and hence is transcended. There is the characteristic feeling of weightlessness associated with moments of transcendence, which in an earlier poem, "Balakirev's Dream," is explicitly associated with music: "I konsertsalen tonades fram ett land / där stenarna inte var tyngre än dagg"; "In the concert hall was conjured up a land / where the stones were not heavier than dew." At the same time, to "curl up like an embryo" suggests a blissful, unconscious participation in nature, a fusion of the inner and the outer world, of subject and object, that is often associated with music, as testified to by Jameson's reading of Ernst Bloch.

The sonata itself is proof of a kind of dialectic inherent in the musical experience, whereby this ontological relationship to the tone finds its fulfillment in that unfolding in time, in that temporal process and movement toward a future plenitude, which we know as musical form. Thus music is profoundly Utopian, both in its form and in its content…. The transfig ured time of Utopia offers a perpetual present in which there is a specific, yet total ontological satisfaction of every instant. Death in such a world has nothing left to take; it cannot damage a life already fully realized.

Bloch saw music as an antidote to alienation, a blueprint for a future Utopia, and he made music the foundation of his theoretical work Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle Hope).

Seen in this light, music becomes one of the means by which the individual can still assert a precarious inwardness. In musical time the confusing mass of sensations and events in ordinary existence is reshaped, rhythmicized, as it were, and made to reflect a human order and a human time. Thus we would live twice: once in linear time, subject to decay and disintegration, harassed and confused by the welter of phenomena and sensations, carried along with the flux; and then again in a spacious musical time, which is an "interweaving not only of moment with moment, but of the transiency of moments with the permanence of that which sustains us in their passage" (BF, 11). Or, as Tranströmer himself has it, in the closing lines of "Schubertiana:"

… Den långa melodin som är sig själv i alla förvandlingar, ibland glittrande och vek, ibland skrovlig och stark, snigelspår och stålwire.

Det envisa gnolandet som följer oss just nu


djupen. (D, 145)

… The long melody that remains itself in all its transformation, sometimes glittering and pliant sometimes rugged and strong, snail-track and steel wire

The perpetual humming that follows us-now-up

the depths. (TSP, 144)

Source: Joanna Bankier, "Breaking the Spell: Subversion in the Poetry of Tomas Tranströmer," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 4, Autumn 1990, pp. 591–95.


Bankier, Joanna, "Tomas Tranströmer," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 257, Twentieth-Century Swedish Writers after World War II, edited by Ann-Charlotte Gavel Adams, Gale, 2002, pp. 277–90.

Bly, Robert, "Tomas Tranströmer and 'The Memory,'" in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 4, Autumn 1990, pp. 570–73.

Lenhart, Gary, "Hard Edge Fog," in the American Book Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, September–October 1987, p. 10.

Tranströmer, Tomas, "Answers to Letters," in New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe Books, 1997, pp. 136–37.

Further Reading

Balakian, Anna, Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute, University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Balakian offers a rewarding insight into the movement that, many critics would argue, has significantly influenced Tranströmer's poetry.

Bly, Robert, Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations, Beacon, 1975.

Bly's theory of "leaping poetry" is a vital contribution to the critical understanding of Tranströmer and other post–World War II European poets popular in the United States.

Steene, Birgitta, "Vision and Reality in the Poetry of Tomas Tranströmer," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 37, 1965, pp. 236–44.

Steene offers a general analysis of Tranströmer's techniques and themes. Although it was written long before the publication of "Answers to Letters," her essay provides insights into some of the most important themes of the poem.

Tranströmer, Tomas, and Robert Bly, Air Mail: Brev 1964–1990, compiled by Torbjörn Schmidt, translated by Lars-Håkan Svensson, Bonnier, 2001.

This collection of letters charts the long-standing correspondence of Tranströmer and his friend, fellow poet, and advocate in the United States.